Feeling good is about more than just slapping on a smile and saying everything is all right. In fact, experts in the field of positive psychology suggest the key to a life well lived is actively engaging with both the good and the bad. Positive psychology contends that active learning, engagement and mindfulness, rather than false smiles and affirmations, promotes happiness.
The road to success?
Researchers examining subjective wellbeing (otherwise known as happiness) analysed the associations between certain variables, such as happiness and health or happiness and money. In the latter instance, they found that people who were successful were happy before their success. This is not to suggest that happiness creates success, however. “Positive affect (i.e. feeling good) is one strength among several that can help achieve approach-oriented success,” their report concluded.
Several studies have focused on the effects of repeating affirmations meant to enhance happiness, such as saying “I’m a great person” or “Every day I get better and better.” A report in Psychological Science found that, for people with low self-esteem, simply saying affirmations such as these when they felt unhappy caused them to feel worse. Despite the majority of evidence pointing in this direction, it’s important to note that some people may find affirmations help them cope with feelings of negativity.
Professor Julie Norem states that some people perform better at certain tasks when they set low expectations and think through the worst-case scenarios beforehand, even when they have experienced success in the past. She calls this ‘defensive pessimism’ and has found that interfering with this strategy – for example, by insisting on affirmations – can result in poorer performance. Defensive pessimists use their anxiety about upcoming tasks to motivate themselves, but are able to recognise that staying in situations and working towards goals will ultimately build mastery.
How to do it
An example may help illustrate the difference between positive thinking and techniques derived from psychology research. Take Joan, a corporate woman in her mid-30s who believes she is disliked by people in her office. A positive thinker might suggest Joan repeat affirmations to target her self-doubt, such as “I am a confident and capable person who people want to be around”. Psychology research would suggest it’s important to know whether Joan’s opinion of herself is accurate. What is the evidence? If she is indeed irritating to those around her, affirmations are unlikely to enhance her happiness. Alternatively, Joan my feel this way simply because she has experienced nothing to tell her otherwise – that she is, in fact, liked. Either way, psychology research shows Joan is learning to perceive the world around her.
The strategy of defensive pessimism and techniques from cognitive behavioural therapy fit with the idea that by embracing both positive and negative experiences, we can be better off emotionally. This approach is also used in mindfulness-based interventions, which promotes acceptance of thoughts and emotions. The majority of experts in this field tend to agree that life is best lived when we are learning, questioning and exploring the world with curiosity. Norem captures this sentiment well: “Negative thinking is positive psychology when it helps, as defensive pessimism does, when people achieve their goals.”